When I teach literature I always tell them, these would-be writers (we don’t do workshops, we just read great books), I say, “When you read Pride and Prejudice, don’t if you’re a girl identify with Elizabeth Bennet, if you’re a boy with Darcy. Identify with the author, not with the characters.” All good readers do that automatically, but I think it’s helpful to make that clear. Your affinity is not with the characters, always with the writer. You should always be asking yourself, if you want to become an expert reader or perhaps a writer, you should always say, “How is this being achieved?” “How is this scene being managed?” “How is this being brought off?” Because the characters are artifacts. They’re not real people with real destinies and I know that feeling, when you’re reading Pride and Prejudice even for the fourth time, you feel definite anxiety about whether they’re going to get married, even though you know perfectly well that they do. There’s a slight sort of, “Come on, kiss her!”
Writers are generally told to do two things – write and read. But here is lovely advice from Martin Amis (whose work I’ve never read, and who I don’t know much about, but whose advice here is spot on). There is a difference between reading as a reader and reading as a writer. I’ve always done both, but if I want to learn why some books are classics, I should do more of the latter.
Because there are so many lively, witty young women in romance novels, and yet Elizabeth Bennett stands above them all. How does Jane Austen make us care about her? It’s easy just to straight-up identify with what Elizabeth is feeling, and more difficult to dig through the layers and figure out how the writing helps you identify with her.
So – something to keep in mind next time you read!